CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kemba Walker took shot after shot Friday on a side hoop at the Spectrum Center practice court. Floater in the paint, layup on the right block with the inside hand, layup on the left block off the wrong foot, corner 3-pointer. He's a professional basketball player, pure and simple, and this was just another day to work on his craft.
But Friday morning, Walker found himself in a situation he had never encountered during his seven years with the Hornets. The All-Star point guard has become available on the trade market with Charlotte looking at a potential teardown ahead of the Feb. 8 deadline, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
"I've seen [the rumors]," Walker said to a tight circle of media members after Friday's practice. "This is the first time I've really been in this kind of situation. What can I do? I'm still here, and I've been here for the last seven years. I'm gonna do what I gotta do to help my team win games. All I can do. I have no control over those kinds of things."
It makes some sense based on where the Hornets stand for general manager Rich Cho to consider a serious shakeup. Charlotte is seven games under .500 (18-25, 11th in the Eastern Conference) with a team payroll north of $115 million, and not much will change financially next season. It's difficult to cut that kind of check when the Hornets are heading toward the lottery for the second consecutive season after a 48-34 finish in 2016.
Attaching Walker's bargain contract — he makes $12 million this season and next season before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2019 — to an expensive piece like Nic Batum, Dwight Howard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Marvin Williams would allow the Hornets to clear space while, ideally, netting a young prospect or first-round draft pick.
But trades don't exist in an "NBA 2K18" format. There's a cost beyond losing Walker's 21.7 points and 5.8 assists per game. Taken at No. 9 in the 2011 NBA Draft, Walker saw only seven victories for the then-Bobcats as the team suffered through the worst season in NBA history in terms of winning percentage.
Since then, Walker has transformed himself into a complete offensive threat and an underrated, pesky defender. But what he means to the Hornets and the city of Charlotte stretches much farther than even the space created between him and a defender by one of his trademark stepback jumpers.
"He's our best player, he's the face of the franchise and I think it'd be very difficult to find a scenario where he'd get traded," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said.
When asked whether he could see Walker being dealt, Hornets forward Nic Batum offered an incredulous "Nooooo," all but saying he should be viewed as untouchable.
"He's a captain, the best player, an All-Star. He's our leader," Batum said. "He's everything for us. We go where he goes."
That last point might apply to the Hornets fan base. Charlotte has landed in the bottom third of the league attendance numbers since the franchise returned to the Queen City. The Hornets are 22nd in average home attendance and 26th in home attendance percentage this season. Move Walker now, and you'll hear every command Clifford yells bouncing off the empty seats at Spectrum Center.
Walker is in the process of building a house in Charlotte. In some ways, he considers North Carolina home more than his native New York — and that's something Hornets supporters have noticed and embraced.
"This is where I got my opportunity," Walker said. "Seven years in now, been here for seven years, and I do a lot with the community, of course. I've gotten to know a lot of the fans. A lot of the fans have a lot of love for me, as well as I've got love for them. Of course I'm gonna be tied to this place."
The ultimate fear in any trade scenario isn't fan anger — it's fan apathy. Walker gives the Hornets a face, a brand, a reason to watch.
"Well, the Hornets aren't doing all that great, but we can see Kemba hit a guy with a crossover so hard he might fall down."
Cho finds himself stuck in a familiar position for GMs in small markets. Continue to work toward being consistently competitive and push for a playoff spot, or start over with a Sixers-style rebuild in mind.
Trusting the process doesn't always yield results, though, and trading one of the best players in franchise history could cause irreparable damage, alienating a fan base not all that far removed from the ugliest season the sport has ever seen.
For now, Walker will keep wearing the purple and teal, and he will keep working. At heart, he's a professional basketball player, pure and simple — even if he means much more.
"I put my heart and soul into this team, into this city," Walker said. "That's what I'm gonna do until everything's over."